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January 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 31, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Politics of DEMA

and an odd fellowship with the oil industry

from the January, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The Diving Equipment & Marketing Association (DEMA) is a trade association with the mission to work in the interest of the dive industry -- people for whom diving is a business. It doesn't represent sport divers, the customers of the businesses it represents, though it works to recruit new divers and keep divers diving.

DEMA takes positions on public and private policy, and has taken a strong stance on some issues important to divers -- seeking protection for Goliath grouper, supporting the eradication of lionfish in Florida, and opposing the cruise ship dock to be built in Grand Cayman.

One might think the interests of divers and businesses are identical, but last fall, we were puzzled by a DEMA policy alert about an omnibus energy conservation bill winding its way through California's legislature. Besides seeking increased energy efficiency in buildings and requiring California utilities to get more renewable energy by 2030, it contained a provision that called for a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use in cars and trucks by 2030.

Where Did They Find This "Expert"?

That last provision caught DEMA's eye, leading it to tell its members, "For the recreational diving industry, this legislation could have a detrimental impact on the household budgets of [those] who travel within the state to dive . . . divers could make fewer trips, purchase fewer certifications and buy less equipment. SB 350 will make it more difficult for all business operators, including diving operators, to do business in California." They quoted Rusty Berry, owner of Scuba Schools of America in Montclair, CA, as saying the bill "could disrupt budgets to the point that they'll have to choose between getting to work and going diving."

Berry, who has a litany of web complaints about how he treats his customers, isn't much of an expert on how the consequences of this complicated bill would affect drivers 15 years from now, but DEMA chose to get on his bandwagon and asked its members to defeat the entire bill. The petroleum industry led the fight against the bill, joined by just about anyone else who profits from automobiles' burning gas. DEMA joined these folks, who say to hell with reducing carbon emissions and ocean acidification, we want your cars to run on oil and gas, not electricity, solar power or anything else.

What Is DEMA Fighting For?

They've been in bed with the same folks before. In our June 2012 issue, we questioned why DEMA had partnered with the likes of American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, and the National Association of Homebuilders to create the deceitfully named National Ocean Policy Coalition, which had the mission of helping Congress gut the ocean policy proposed by the Obama administration. The coalition stated that while it "recognizes the critical role our oceans, coastal areas and marine ecosystems play in our nation's economy," and wants to conserve "the natural resources and marine habitat of our oceans and coastal regions," it also wants to "enhance commercial and recreational activities, such as oil and gas development, minerals development, marine transport, commercial fishing, recreational fishing and boating, and tourism," and "avoid ceding all regulatory power impacting the oceans and coastal areas to one agency." It also wants federal authority to be "limited to federal waters and should not infringe on state authorities to manage resources and activities under state jurisdiction." The coalition members are all companies and business-focused organizations -- not a scientific or environmental group is a member.

In support of California SB 350, DEMA issued a similar statement, noting that while it "supports viable efforts to reduce hydrocarbon emissions and other forms of pollution that effect [sic] the environment, especially as may effect [sic] global warming, with its related impact on coral reefs and dive sites around the world, the bill being proposed attempts to mandate too much, too soon, without the completion of the sorts of scientific and engineering study, and public and industry input and evaluation, that the bill's own language mandates." To all people and organizations concerned with the environment, SB 350 was the "viable effort" DEMA opposed.

Although Undercurrent is a member of DEMA, we're just bystanders. We speculate that policy positions like the above are based far more on the political views of some individuals in DEMA than on any concrete concern for the dive industry. From our outsider's viewpoint, overfishing, trash dumping, ocean acidification, coastal overdevelopment and the resulting coastal pollution are more directly affecting the health of the diving industry, not the ill-founded position that, by seeking alternative ways to power vehicles and halve gasoline consumption 2030, a Pasadena diver will be unable to afford the petrol to make a 200-mile round trip to dive in Santa Barbara. In fact, if DEMA wants to back pro-oil issues, why not at least encourage dive boats and liveaboards to buy carbon credits?

To understand DEMA politics better, we tried to talk with many DEMA board members, all of whom referred us to DEMA executive director Tom Ingram, who told us to email the questions. While we preferred a conversation (Ingram said no), here's what we garnered.

Ingram didn't give any more reasons why DEMA supported California's SB 350, other than to say DEMA responds to state, federal, or overseas legislations "when operators in the area, members of the DEMA board or others express concerns and also support a position that makes sense for the industry." Even though, we think, Rusty Barry's views are unfounded.

DEMA has a Public Policy Committee that Ingram says "works for the betterment of the recreational diving industry, seeking to engage in activities which . . . the Committee includes DEMA members with a variety of viewpoints and locations, as well as from different stakeholder groups." It focuses its attention on issues in bellwether states like Florida, California, Texas, New York and Hawaii, which may have an additional impact elsewhere in the U.S. "Where possible, DEMA also notifies members of federal, state or offshore issues that have a direct impact on their businesses," Ingram wrote. He highlighted DEMA's tips to dive shops about lobster diving seasons in Florida and California, dive flag use and the Navy's recent final ruling on diving on sunken military boats.

DEMA has its Ships to Reefs program, turning retired vessels into artificial reefs, but when we asked Ingram about the national push to turn oil rigs along the U.S. coast into diveable reefs (see our February 2015 article on the issue), he only wrote, "DEMA remains supportive of leaving retired or abandoned rigs in place where possible and appropriate." This would be a good place for DEMA leadership, better than quashing a renewable energy bill.

Regarding bigger climate change issues that affect bleaching and ocean acidification worldwide, Ingram pointed us to his DEMA testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Ocean Acidification in April 2010. He wrote, "Undoubtedly, losing coral reefs due to ocean acidification . . . would be economically detrimental to the recreational scuba and snorkeling industries in the U.S." However, "the industries could be detrimentally impacted by regulatory policies that create more immediate cost or reduction of access when such policies may be unnecessary or overly burdensome . . . By understanding more about the economics of ocean acidification on the diving industries, it should be possible to balance the long-term environmental needs of the oceans and reefs, with the more immediate concerns of those that help their customers enjoy the ocean environment."

Keep in mind that ocean acidification is a direct result of carbon emissions, which seems once again to be a bouquet to the oil industry. We just can't see how the effort to cut carbon emissions and reduce ocean acidification is contrary to the concerns of those businesses "that help their customers enjoy the ocean environment." Just how does DEMA's view of "balancing environmental needs" with their customers' needs have anything to do with selling more Discover Scuba courses or more regulators? And how does DEMA's opposition to the legislation we cited "promote the health of aquatic resources while protecting diver access to those resources, so that we all have a place to dive that is clean and healthy?"

"They're Doing the Bare Minimum"

Graham Casden, owner of Ocean First Divers in Boulder, CO, told Undercurrent he doesn't believe DEMA is doing enough to support his business or its long-term future. "From my experience, it's slim to none," he says. "My understanding is the board is PADI and big manufacturers who are focused on other issues."

Casden senses that DEMA isn't really focused on environmental issues. A few years ago, when its annual conference was held in Las Vegas, Casden stayed at a DEMA-approved hotel and saw it had shark fin soup on the menu. "I made a big stink about it and walked out, and DEMA issued an apology the next day." But no other action was taken, he says.

When Casden co-founded Blue the Dive, a nonprofit focused on getting the dive industry to support ocean conservation through eco-friendly business practices, he contacted DEMA to ask for its endorsement. The answer was no. "We're trying to create a more sustainable dive business model -- it's kind of a no-brainer," Casden says. "If DEMA hired a PR firm, the least they would tell them is to get behind initiatives that are positive and support the dive industry. But I think it has a lot to do with the composition of DEMA's board, their myopic point of view about the industry, and not being very progressive or forward thinking. They are doing the bare minimum."

"It's Not Political, It's the Reality"

Laurie Wilson, publisher of the dive travel news website Blue Ocean Network and host of the annual Blue Ocean Business Summit, says that's probably the case because of the left wing, right-wing political schism in the U.S. "If you talk about sustainability and climate change, you're considered a left-wing Democrat. If you a denier, you're a right-winger. This is why DEMA cannot step into the political fray, it's shooting itself in the foot."

Wilson says she recently talked to some DEMA board members who agreed that there should be specifically an Environmental Committee; right now, it's lumped into the Public Policy Committee. "But they're very concerned about attracting environmentalists, like it's a bad thing! Still, they're trying to come up with a set of parameters to create a committee that will not create huge backlash. Right now, everything is hodgepodge -- the shark-fin thing, the lobster thing, the lionfish thing -- it's because of this issue of politics. But our industry is based on a pristine reef, and we are on shaky ground if we don't face that head on."

What can DEMA do without rocking the boat politically? Wilson says they could do something as simple with their "Be a Responsible Diver" program as talking about environmentally responsible seafood. "It's not political; it's the reality."

We have no quarrel with DEMA representing the best interests of dive businesses. That's their purpose. But by joining with the oil companies to fight renewable energy for automobiles and to take a wait-and see-position on ocean acidification, we think they're off into irrelevant territory to serve masters other than the diving industry.

P.S.: As for California SB 350, Governor Jerry Brown dropped the provision for the 50 percent petroleum reduction, then signed the far-reaching bill in October, saying, "Oil has won the skirmish. But they've lost the bigger battle." Of course, he made no mention of the dive industry.

--Vanessa Richardson

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